Dating a work of art and determining its creator is rarely easy. This task is made more difficult when there is little to no primary source documentation about the work. Without paperwork to lead them in the right direction, art historians have to look to other means to determine who created the work and when it was created. This means analyzing the work and looking for clues, such as the style, dimensions, base, and skill level needed.
This process is exactly what scholars are doing with two David statues by Donatello. Both of these statues, the Prophet David (Fig. ) and the marble David (Fig. 2) have very little primary source documentation regarding exactly when they were carved or where they were first placed. Earlier scholars believed the marble David was carved for a buttress of the Florence Cathedral, while recent scholars now argue that the marble David was carved for the Palazzo della Signoria and the Prophet David statue was the one made for the buttress. Donatello’s marble David was made as a separate commission for the Palazzo della Signoria because of its style, base shape, and attention to detail.
Influences on Donatello’s Style Donatello’s early career sees him working with two other great artists of the time—Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Working with and learning from both of these men had the greatest influence on Donatello’s style. While there is little documentation providing exact details about Donatello’s training, his close friendship with Brunelleschi and time spent working for Ghiberti no doubt had an impact on his style. In his book Donatello: Sculptor John Pope-Hennessy discusses Donatello’s early life and career.
Donatello, from the very beginning, was closely associated with Brunelleschi, the architect and sculptor, and like Brunelleschi he seems to have been trained as a metal worker (13). Donatello may have honed his metal working skills and formed a lifelong friendship while working as an apprentice to Brunelleschi when he was working on the silver altar of St. James in the Cathedral at Pistoia (13). After the Opera del Duomo awarded the commission for the Baptistery’s bronze doors to Ghiberti in 1402, Brunelleschi decided to go to Rome for several years and took sixteen year-old Donatello with him (14).
Vasari tells us that Brunelleschi went to study architecture while Donatello wanted to study sculpture. Upon their arrival in Rome, the pair immediately went to work measuring ground plans and details of cornices. They studied and took dimensions of everything from Rome to Campagna (Vasari 72). It is from this trip that Donatello would have gained his knowledge of the ancient sculptures. During this trip he would have seen the posturing of the statues and learned of contrapposto.
This style places the body off-balance by positioning one leg in front of the other and is characteristic of ancient Roman and Greek sculptures and during the early 1400’s, would have only been found in and around Rome. Donatello’s time in Rome could not have lasted longer than a year because in 1404 Donatello’s name is on the list of assistants in Ghiberti’s workshop working on the bronze doors for the Baptistery (Pope-Hennessy 14). As an assistant to Ghiberti, Donatello would have learned how to convincingly model figures in a relief (Avery 7).
Under Ghiberti’s tutelage Donatello would have learned the late gothic style (one with hints of the Renaissance) of body placement and style. His employment with Ghiberti did not last long. By early 1407, Donatello was working on his own for the Opera del Duomo carving marble statues paid for by the Wool Merchants Guild (Avery 7). Donatello must have had training as a marble sculpture prior to beginning with the Opera because he could not have learned the necessary techniques from Brunelleschi or Ghiberti but no records exist detailing such an apprenticeship.
Cathedral Sculptures Medieval churches often decorated the buttresses with large freestanding sculptures, most commonly prophets announcing the coming of the Savior (Partridge 22). The Florence Cathedral was no different. The Opera del Duomo, Italian for cathedral works, is the group of men in charge of overseeing the construction and decoration of the cathedral. In 1408, this board commissioned two statues, an Isaiah from Nanni di Banco (Fig. 4) and a David from Donatello as part of a series intended for the buttresses of the tribunes (Partridge 22).
These sculptures were to serve as decorations for the top of the buttresses, some ninety feet in the air. During the time both the Davids were carved, the early part of the 15th century, there were two prevailing styles of art—late Gothic and early Renaissance. Santa Maria della Fiore Cathedral in Florence began in the gothic style, so the sculptures the Opera was commissioning were of the Gothic style. However, because the sculptures were being made during the early part of the Renaissance, they also had a hint of Renaissance style elements.
Style of the two Davids Donatello’s marble David, while having some Gothic elements, is more an example of the early Renaissance style. A key element of the Renaissance style is the principle of contrapposto, or a counterbalancing of the body. This posture has the weight carried on one leg while the other is relaxed with a rotated spine. Using this positioning, an artist can convey an expression of movement, or the potential for it, which “held in equilibrium against the force of gravity” (Partridge 5).
Reminiscences of the Gothic style are still present in the marble David but “a new conception of the human figure, a more realistic understanding of its physical and psychic existence” (Poeschke 18) is overshadowing it. The Gothic elements in the marble David, depicted not as a king, psalmist or prophet, but as the teenage giant killer, can be seen in the “hip-shot stance and long arcs of drapery” (Partridge 22). In Donatello’s early statues, like the marble David, the Gothic style of posing a figure becomes increasingly unimportant. Donatello seems to be taking heavier from classical examples.
Only in his early works does the rediscovered idea of contrapposto begin to take a firmer hold (Poeschke 17). The Prophet David statue on the other hand is very firmly of the Gothic style. Because of this as well as the Renaissance style and the different base shape of the marble David statue, the Prophet David had to be the sculpture carved for the buttress of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in 1408-9. When commissioning works to decorate churches and cathedrals it was commonplace to adorn the buttresses with prophets heralding the coming of the Savior (Partridge 22).
On February 20, 1408, Donatello was given a commission for a statue of the prophet David (figure David profete) that was to crown one of the buttresses on the choir of the Duomo in Florence” (Poeschke 377). Of the two possible statues that could have come from this commission, the Prophet David is the one that fits the characteristic of portraying David as a prophet rather than a young man. Debate over the marble David There are two leading theories about when and for what purpose Donatello’s marble David was commissioned and sculpted.
The first is that the marble David “is identical with the statue carved in 1408-9 for a buttress on the Cathedral” (Pope-Hennessy 40-43). The men in charge of the Opera del Duomo found it unsuitable for its intended location and it was placed in storage in the workshop until 1416 when it was modified for the Palazzo della Signoria. The second theory is that “it was planned from the beginning for the position it eventually occupied in the Sala dell’Orologio and was commissioned for this purpose about 1412” (Pope-Hennessy 40-43).
Under the first theory, Donatello carved the marble David in 1408-9 and was paid 100 florins for his work, 15 more than di Banco received for his Isaiah, reportedly because Donatello’s sculpture included the severed head of Goliath. In 1416 Donatello was paid an additional 5 florins to make some alterations to the statue before it was placed in the Palazzo della Signoria. Support for the first theory “rests on the words ‘pro aptando et perficiendo’ (for adapting and completing), which were wrongly regarded as proof that the statue had been re-cut” (Pope Hennessy 43).
There is further debate about what the exact alterations to the statue were. The debate focuses around the fold of drapery in David’s left hand, whether or not a scroll once existed, and if so, where was it located, and where the strap of the sling shot was originally placed. Lanyi suggested “a scroll was originally held between the fourth and fifth fingers of David’s left hand, and that when it was removed the small part that remained was converted into a fold of drapery” (Pope-Hennessy 43). Janson had a different argument.
He argued, “the scroll was held in the right hand and survives in the form of ‘two faint parallel lines running downwards in a smooth curve, clearly the ‘ghost’ of a scroll that has been cut away’” (Pope-Hennessy 43). Janson also suggested that the “folds of the cloak would…have been modified to reveal the bare left leg” (Pope-Hennessy 43). The problem with both of these arguments is that the statue has not been modified or re-cut. The strap from the sling on Goliath’s head must have been connected to the drill holes in David’s right hand, not his left.
The overwhelming evidence for the second theory that the marble David was carved in 1412-16 begins with the base of the statue. The base of the statue is not the same shape as the Cathedral buttress nor does is match the base of Nanni di Banco’s Isaiah, which we know was made for the buttress. Also, given the location and placement of David’s feet and the severed head of the giant Goliath, the base could not have been reduced from a pentagon into its current shape (Pope-Hennessy 43).
The second detail supporting the second theory is the head of Goliath itself. Atop the buttress at a height of ninety feet, the head would have been invisible (Pope-Hennessy 43). Why include this intricately carved head if people are not going to be able to see it? From his friendship and work with Brunelleschi, Donatello would have been well aware of perspective and would have known that the small head would not have been visible and would not have included it in the work.